Q & A: John Edwards

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John Edwards may well end up a candidate for President in 2008, but for now, he's director of the new Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina School of Law. Since the last election, John Kerry's running mate has spent much of his time speaking around the country about the 37 million Americans who live under the poverty line. He has also supported Justice for Janitors campaigns and other efforts to address the struggles of low-wage workers. He spoke with TIME's Jeremy Caplan about his thoughts on poverty and why he's made it his signature issue.

Why do so few politicians spend time talking about poverty?

I think the perception exists that it's not a politically popular subject and that people in general aren't interested in it. I think that's why politicians on both sides of the aisle don't talk about it much.

So why did you make it a primary issue in your campaign, and why do you continue to focus on it?

Well, it was a very important issue for me personally before I ever got involved in politics. I worked with a group called Urban Ministries, a faith-based group in North Carolina, to help address the needs of the poor. So once I was elected to [the Senate], it became an issue, particularly when I was running for President, an issue that I wanted to talk about. Part of what I believe. And then when the election was over, we had a meeting with a group of friends of mine, when I was deciding what I'd spend my time doing. And everyone agreed that whatever subjects we talked about, the one I showed most passion about was the issue of poverty, which was true. I could feel it myself. My feelings now are stronger than they've ever been. It's become very, very personal for me because of the time I've spent talking with people.

What have you learned?

They live on the edge every day. That survival becomes the goal, as opposed to trying to do better. It takes almost nothing to knock them off, even if they start making some progress. For the most part they don't have anything to fall back on, so if a child gets sick, they don't have health care coverage. If they run into a financial problem, they don't have any cushion. The result is they're right back in the ditch. You can't live on $6, $7 or $8 an hour and have anything to fall back on. Or save anything. Most folks who live on those kind of wages don't have bank accounts or credit cards, which makes them incredibly vulnerable to predatory payday lenders. They live a very difficult life. They're trying to survive day to day. And instead of getting ahead, which most families want to focus on, they're focused on survival.

How is low-wage work different today from 20 years ago?

It is worse. It's worse for a variety of reasons because of what's happened in the American economy. There has been growth in productivity. But that productivity growth is at the top. There's been very little growth passed along to middle-class or low-income workers. A million people were added to poverty rolls, according to Census Bureau, just in the last year.

What's happening to America, if you look at it from the big-picture perspective, is that there's a group of Americans who are doing extremely well, and that's a good thing. But there's a much larger group of middle-income and low-income families who aren't doing better; in fact they're doing worse. Their wages are stagnant, the cost of everything is skyrocketing — gas, health care, college. That kind of squeeze on middle-class families, which makes them vulnerable, is more intense for low-income families. Their income isn't going up. And the cost of everything they need just to survive is going up. It makes it harder and harder and harder for them. We want low-income families to have a chance to do what my family did. My dad worked at a mill, I was able to go to college and do extremely well in America. If we want other families to have the same kinds of chances I've had, we're going to have to do something about this. It's the right and moral thing to do.

What are three things the government should be doing?

There are a bunch of things the government should do, and things non-governmental groups should do. Raise the income and wages of low-income workers. Basic things like raising the minimum wage. Helping with grassroots campaigns, ballot initiatives in several states to raise the minimum wage. I think we ought to expand earned-income tax credits. One method available for single workers is to eliminate the marriage penalty. Raise the wages of low-income workers in the service economy, where many millions are now. There will be millions more in that economy. If they're able to organize and have a union in the workplace, that has a clearly beneficial effect on wages and benefits.

Asset-wise, the government can find vehicles to help people. Create accounts where we match what low-income families are able to save. Access to college is a big thing. We need to knock down some of the bureaucratic barriers for low-income kids to go to college. We've got a model project that we've got in place for a small poor county in eastern North Carolina, where we call College for Everyone, where every child in the county can go to college. We pay for their tuition and books their first year, if they commit to work 10 hours a week their first year, and they graduate from high school qualified to go.

On the front of payday and predatory lenders, yes, they should be regulated. Not only should they be regulated — to prevent the extraordinary interest rates that they charge families — but we need to put these families in a place where they aren't so susceptible to them. That's why asset creation and ability to create assets is so important. Also I do think that you can't ignore the societal responsibility part of it. You can't do just one thing; they all need to be done. Teenage pregnancies. All these families I meet with, the kids are having kids. And it just breaks your heart, because you can feel the cycle just repeating itself. Teenage pregnancy. Reaching out to fathers so they support their children. Go to poverty centers and you mostly see women, and they're mostly single mothers. Getting men involved in these kids lives. Those last things aren't necessarily governmental things — charitable groups and faith-based groups.